Katydids of the tribe Pterochrozini are some of the best leaf mimics that you can find in the Neotropical rainforest. Or rather the best mimics that you cannot find, as their resemblance to leaves, both green and shriveled, is so exquisite that in my 18 years of working in the Neotropics I have never found one during the day. I only find them at night, when their movement betrays their animal nature, or when I am able to detect their ultrasonic calls with a high frequency microphone.
Upon finding one I usually take a photo, but I never liked those pictures, illuminated only with a flash, the background pitch black. I much prefer images that show the true colors of the background of the animal, and I like to have full control over the quality of light, its direction and intensity. Since I nearly always catch the katydids (they are my professional speciality, and I need the specimens for my work), this gives me an opportunity to photograph them again the following day, using the full photographic arsenal and methods at my disposal.
One of the first things I do when setting up a camp in the rainforest is to build a small workbench. On it I process the specimens, enter field data into my computer, and I use it as a photographic studio. Every species I collect is photographed for documentation, and the photos are entered into a database. These photos are not particularly pretty: they are mostly close-ups of diagnostic characters of the animals, and composition or any other esthetic considerations are completely irrelevant.
But once I am done with the work, the fun begins. Because I usually keep my insects alive for a few days in order to get recordings of their songs, I can then experiment with all variables of their portraiture, such as the depth of field, backlighting, magnification etc. For this type of photography I nearly always use long lenses, which both give me a great working distance, and help diffuse the background and bring out the main subject of the photograph.
Here is a typical setup I use for my rainforest portraiture. I built this little field studio while working in southern Suriname in 2010, and the two photos of Typophyllum katydids shown here were taken in it. The bench itself was made from leftover pieces of wood that was used to construct our research camp.
A. Canon 1Ds Mk II – this is my main full frame workhorse; I like to use full frame cameras when shooting with really long portrait lenses (180mm); a camera with a cropped sensor would force me to move too far back from the table, and it would also make it more difficult to achieve a shallow depth of field.
B. Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro – a wonderful macro lens; it is very sharp, but its bokeh could be better (bright points in the background tend to appear as octagons.)
C. Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter – it allows me to trigger multiple external flashes wirelessly.
D. Tripod GT2531EX 6X Carbon Fiber Explorer – in order to get natural-looking, light background, the exposure time must be relatively long, often as much as several seconds. This means that the camera must be firmly immobilized, and hand-holding it is not an option. I love this tripod – it is light but sturdy, and it allows me to spread the legs flat on the ground, giving me a very low vantage point.
E. Canon Remote Controller TC-80N3 – The use of a remote controller allows me to eliminate vibrations caused by manually pressing the shutter.
F. Canon 580EX speedlight – a powerful, pretty water-resistant flash (but not waterproof!)
G. Diffusers – this cheap piece of plastic (a $1 plastic folder I bought at Staples) is one the most important parts of my equipment. Without it the light of the flash is far too concentrated, resulting in harsh, unpleasant burnouts on any highly reflective elements of the photo.
H. GorillaPod – a great little tripod; very flexible, you can wrap it around a branch, and some models are sturdy enough to support a large SLR with a heavy lens.
I. “Helping hands” – another indispensable piece of gear for anybody interested in macrophotography; it allows you to position a leaf or a branch, or support a piece of paper if you want to have white background for your photo. Get it for a few bucks at RadioShack.
J. Reflector – I always carry one; it allows me to put nice, reflected light on the subject, especially if I am using only ambient light and no flash.
K. Wimberly Plamp – a handy flexible arm to hold the reflector or a branch.